Small Town Big Men

The story of Mattawa, which, its proud people claim, has produced more great Canadians than any other town of its size

FREDERICK EDWARDS September 15 1939

Small Town Big Men

The story of Mattawa, which, its proud people claim, has produced more great Canadians than any other town of its size

FREDERICK EDWARDS September 15 1939

Small Town Big Men

The story of Mattawa, which, its proud people claim, has produced more great Canadians than any other town of its size


ON THE MAP you may locate the pleasant town of Mattawa by first of all finding Ottawa, the capital city. Then you follow the Ottawa River west and now toward its source beyond Temiskaming. About many miles south of Temiskaming, and forty miles east of North Bay, the Mattawa River, meandering eastward through a chain of lakes strung on the thread of the stream like bright 1je beads, joins with the south ward rushing Ottawa at a point deeply set in valleys between the Launtian hills. There is Mattawa.

It is a small, somewhat isola d community on the outermost edge of the eastern C ".ario boundary. The opposite shore of the Ottawa Ri\ Ji is in the Province of Quebec. Incorporated as a town in 1882, Mattawa is governed by a mayor—Art Valois is the current officeholder—and a council of six members. Town Clerk Charles Fink figures there are around twenty-one hundred men, women and children resident within the corporate limits. The population has not changed much in the last quarter century. The annual tax income is about $25,000.

Eighty per cent of the Mattawa folks are bilingual French Canadians. The rest, for the most part, are of mixed Scottish, Irish and English lineage, descendants of pioneers who settled in the town during one or another of its previous incarnations, when it was by turn a furtrading centre, a Hudson’s Bay post, a lumber camp supply base, and the jumping-off place for the Cobalt silver area. Two of Mattawa’s leading families, the Meindls and the Finks, trace their origin back to—of all countries—Austria. There are some native Indians left, and a few interbred Indian groups.

The town has one paved thoroughfare—Main Street— about half a mile long, sloping steeply from the TransCanada highway to the bridge crossing the Mattawa River. On Main Street are almost all Mattawa’s thirtyodd stores, and its two hotels.

Across the bridge, on the side of a pine-covered hill, is the noble, twin-spired Ro^an Catholic Church of Ste. Ann’s. There is also an Ang^can church, St. Alban’s, and a United church. Alongside Ste. Ann’s Church is a neat, modernly equipped red brick hospital, administered by the Grey Nuns.

There are two separate schools for the predominantly Roman Catholic population, and a public school. There is also, now, a high school. Three years or so ago Mattawa citizens decided they needed a high school. The Provincial Board of Education figured that such a school would cost $40,000, of which the community would have to carry its share. The Mattawa folks could not afford any such sum as was required, but they went ahead anyway, and organized their high school in their seldom used court house. Classes are held in every room in the court house except the ground-floor back rooms with the barred windows that serve the town for a jail. Crime in Mattawa is practically nonexistent, the local lawlessness limited to an occasional Saturday night outburst by some rambunctious rumpot. When that happens they lock the miscreant up over Sunday, let him go on Monday morning before school opens, a sadder and—respectable Mattawa hopes—a wiser man. Such simple justice interferes not at all with the regular school routine.

Mattawa has one industry. Just one. A veneer and plywood factory employs about sixty men when it is running full time. Raw materials, mostly huge birch logs, are cut in the forests ten miles back among the hills, trucked into town. Recently Mattawa has been disturbed by rumors that timber cruisers in the woods are reporting the available birch supply giving out. Mattawans fear the plant, their only dependable source of wages, may close down.

Town of Mighty Men

THAT, THEN, is the Mattawa of 1939. A beautiful, but dormant backwoods town, off the main tourist trails, inhabited for the most part by elderly people and children. A community proudly aware of its past glory, but uneasy about its precarious present and frankly afraid of its doubtful future.

Of what significance is this sleepy village to the Canada of today?

It has a very real significance—an inspirational importance arising from its by no means inconsequential past. The claim is made for this tiny frontier town that, for its size, it has produced more great men. more Canadians who have achieved national, yes, and international, prominence in various walks of life than any other community in the Dominion. For its size, mark you.

That proud boast may well be true. It is not possible to check and cross-check such a claim within the limits of a magazine article. Here we can but present the Mattawa story as it is spread upon the available records; and, whether or not the claim can be substantiated in its entirety, the tally of great names in Mattawa’s history is, of itself, worthy of national recognition and high praise.

Either by birth or through long association with the community, Mattawa has given to Canada such mining pioneers as Noah and Henry Timmins, David Dunlap, the Ferlands, Jack Rankin and Leonard Smith. To music and education the little town gave Joseph Beaulieu, for twenty years Professor of French at Ottawa University, concert singer and composer. To the arts Mattawa contributed Armand Pigeon, painter, designer, and former technical adviser to Hollywood.

Dr. Alexander Meindl, now Chief Surgeon at St. Boniface Hospital, Manitoba, was born in Mattawa, as was his brother, Joseph Meindl, presently City Engineer of St. Boniface.

In athletics, few Canadians, at least of the older school,

are better known than M. J. “Mike” Rodden, hockey player and referee, football coach, sports writer and editor. Mike was born in Mattawa. So was Louis Berlinquette, for fifteen years a major league hockey player with Les Canadiens.

Archie Blainey, more famous as “Grey Owl,” naturalist, lecturer and author, had close ties with Mattawa, although he was not bom there. He went to school in the town, made it the base for his first explorations among the wild life of the forest, and married Gertrude Bernard, a Mattawa girl.

During the war Mattawa recruited the 130th Battalion and gave to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces the eight Desormeaux boys, whose deeds of daring overseas are almost legendary.

These are a few of Mattawa’s great men. There are others. Frank Cochrane, John Loughrin and George Smith, in politics; Leonard MacCracken, son of a former Hudson’s Bay factor, in journalism; Fred Ferland, recently recruited to radio.

Some of the Mattawa men have been more widely famous than others, but they have all been men of achievement, and they were all closely associated with this tiny town, tucked snugly away among the folded Laurentian hills. Disregarded, almost forgotten now, Mattawa in its day has made mighty and lavish contributions to Canadian progress.

Older Than Montreal

'VyfATTAWA’S history appears as a series of colorful -‘•*1 pictures, all different, but all related, arranged together against the permanent background of the little town’s everlasting hills and valleys, as a montage. The pictures are diverse, their characters changing with the marching years. The background is always the same.

The town is very old. Older than the white man’s history in Canada. Older than North Bay, the hustling community that today overshadows it. Older than Toronto, or Montreal, as Montreal, or Ottawa, as Ottawa. Montreal was at first Hochelaga, Ottawa was Bytown, and Toronto was York; but Mattawa has always been Mattawa.

During the summer of 1614 that courageous and determined explorer, Samuel de Champlain, still stubbornly pursuing the vain belief that by following eastern Canadian rivers he would find at last a passage to China, brought his flotilla of canoes to this beauty spot. There he found an Indian village. His guides told him the place was called, in the Algonquin tongue, Mattawa—“The Meeting of the Waters.” It has been Mattawa ever since; and that was three hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Mattawa’s ancient importance is commemorated by a bronze tablet set in a cairn of native stone on a site about a quarter of a mile from the point where the waters of the Mattawa and the Ottawa mingle. The tablet, erected in 1930' by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, sets forth, in French and English, that here is “Le Portage Mattawa:”

Main canoe route to the Great Lakes, Plains, Rockies and beyond, used by Indians and explorers, traders and missionaries, French and English.

Upon its traffic was founded the early commercial prosperity of Montreal.

That is the first picture we have of Mattawa. It is recorded for posterity in Champlain’s diary. For more than two hundred years this aspect of Mattawa changed little. It remained an Indian village, a native metropolis for the fur trade following the canoe route down the Ottawa to the St. Lawrence.

It became an important Hudson’s Bay trading post in due course. Then, as the lumber industry grew and the fur trade dwindled, Mattawa’s interest turned from skins

to trees. The town became a lumber camp of major consequence. From the time of the breakup each spring until the ice locked the rivers again in late autumn, Mattawa was a throbbing, often a turbulent, stopping-off place for thousands of woodsmen and lumberjacks. Scores of camps bought their supplies and equipment from Mattawa merchants.

Godfather to Cobalt

LOUIS LAMOTHE, once a steamboat captain, who built J the first Mattawa railroad, a narrow gauge affair connecting the town with Kipawa, another lumber centre some miles north, still runs a general store and a bakery in Mattawa. He has been there for more than fifty of his seventy-five years. For many years he was mayor.

“I have seen the time,” said the veteran Matta wan, “when both rivers would be choked with logs from shore to shore all summer long. Great log rafts, being floated down the Ottawa to the big mills at Hull.” In the expansive days of John R. Booth and E. B. Eddy, Mattawa was a key town.

That is no more. The big trees have been cut from the near-by forest lands. What remains is valueless, commercially; and the lumber business is in the doldrums, anyway. So another Mattawa picture fades.

Again, between 1900 and 1910, while Cobalt was being established, Larder Lake and Gowganda explored and the rich Porcupine area discovered, Mattawa knew prosperity. Many Mattawa men, notably the Timmins brothers and Lawyer David Dunlap, were active in those early north country developments. But the mining territory moved farther north, as had the fur trade and the timber country.

The pictures forming the Mattawa montage vary in clarity. We see the Indian village, the fur-trading centre and the lumber camp less plainly than the Cobalt boom days, because they are dimmed by the mists of long forgotten years. Thousands of living Canadians have personal knowledge of Cobalt and the early days of the Northern Ontario mining camps. The legend of Blacksmith Nap Larose, working on construction of the new Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, who playfully tossed his hammer into the air and chipped from the rock upon which it fell a shining lump of pure silver as big as your fist, is a familiar romance in Canadian mining histqry.

However garishly that tale may have been decorated in repeated tellings, Napoleon Larose was a fact. So was the Larose Mine, and so were the Timmins brothers, and David Dunlap. Especially David Dunlap. •

David Dunlap, son of a farmer, born in Pembroke, ninety miles southeast of Mattawa, was trained for the law, but his heart was in the North Country. He moved with his widowed mother and a sister to Mattawa, around 1880. Later, Miss Dunlap married Frank Cochrane, who managed a hardware store in Mattawa and went on in politics to become Hon. Frank Cochrane, Minister of Mines, Lands and Forests in the provincial government of his day. The town of Cochrane is named for him.

When Lawyer Dunlap hung out his shingle in Mattawa, two brothers, Henry and Noah Timmins, were helping their father, Noah Timmins, Sr., to run a general store at the foot of Main Street, alongside the bridge. Noah Timmins, who had been reeve of Mattawa when it was yet only a village, died in 1887, and the two sons inherited the business.

David Dunlap became friendly with the Timmins boys, as indeed he was with everyone in Mattawa. His law business could not have been very demanding, and he put in a great deal of time on hunting and fishing trips up the Mattawa to Lake Temiskaming, and in the surrounding bush country. Having some knowledge of geology, a hobby of his, he became possessed of the notion that there was mineral wealth hidden in those Laurentian rock formations. His somewhat amateurish prospecting yielded no tangible result; but his faith and his enthusiasm remained unshaken.

Then came the Larose incident. Exciting rumors, spreading through the district, reached Mattawa. Still, they were only rumors until one day David Dunlap saw Willet G. Miller, a geologist employed by the Ontario Bureau of Mines, on a Mattawa street, learned that he was headed for the railway construction camp.

David Dunlap sought out the Timmins brothers. “Miller must have something,” he told them. “Let’s find out what it is.” That was in 1903.

It is history that the Timmins’ business was not at that moment in a flourishing

condition. The brothers owed money, needed more money to carry on. With Dunlap they trailed the provincial mines man up the Mattawa River, across Lake Temiskaming—one version of the story says that they crossed the lake on a raft of rough logs bound together with rope— and learned that silver had been found. How much silver, or how valuable it was, nobody knew; but silver was there.

The Timmins Saga

JOHN and Duncan McMartin, Montreal contractors, were building that section of the T. and N. O. Blacksmith Nap Larose was working for the McMartins, and he had carried his chunk of pretty rock to them. One of the Mattawa Ferlands knew of the discovery, too. David Dunlap urged Ferland and the McMartins to declare the Timmins brothers in on the proposition, whatever it was to be. Ferland, a staunch home-town man himself, agreed, and carried the McMartins with him. Dunlap did the legal groundwork for the original Larose Mining Company, and helped the Timmins brothers to scrape up enough money in Mattawa to finance their share of the deal. Oldsters in Mattawa will tell you today that it was hard scraping. They got together a few thousand dollars—$2,500 is the sum most generally named—and so became an important part of the first Cobalt development.

From that time on the fortunes of David Dunlap and Noah and Henry Timmins ran side by side to great wealth.» Besides Larose and the Larose Extension they bought other Cobalt properties; then, as the silver boom languished and the town of Cobalt faded on the vine, they moved on to Porcupine, Hollinger, Timmins and Noranda properties. When David Dunlap died in 1924, he left an estate of close to $6,000,000. He was a genuine and sincere philanthropist. Much of his money went to educational institutions and charities. The famed Donalda Experimental Farm and the David Dunlap Memorial Observatory, both in the Toronto district, are his enduring monuments.

The relationship between David Dunlap and Noah and Henry Timmins was exceptional in the degree of confidence each placed in the other. Mr. Dunlap once said: “In all our dealings there was never any written agreement between us. Nor was one ever necessary.” A remarkable statement, especially from a lawyer.

After Noah and Henry Timmins, the Mattawa storekeepers, made their joint decision to come out from behind the counter and go into the mines, their interests broadened in time to an even greater scope than those of David Dunlap. They extended their activities to the West, and into foreign countries. Noah Timmins, at the time of his death less than four years ago, was truly an international figure, known and respected wherever mining men gathered the world over.

Save for the iron-fenced grave of Noah Timmins, Sr., the former reeve, in the Catholic cemetery on the hillside behind Ste. Ann’s Church, there is little left in Mattawa now of the Timmins saga. There is one important thing. The site of the old Timmins homestead, on the high bank of the Ottawa River, has been given to the town by the Timmins heirs, and equipped as a children’s playground. The old house has been tom down, a modern picnic shelter built in its place, but the family root house, a low shed of whitewashed rough stone, remains, and an arched sign identifies the spot as the Timmins Memorial Park.

The vast Timmins affairs are administered now from Montreal by the new generation of Timmins, Henry Jr., and Julius. Henry Jr. maintains a summer home near Mattawa, spends at least a few weeks there each year during the hot weather. In Montreal, Jack Rankin, Mattawa bom, handles most of the Timmins business, acts as manager and confidential adviser to the younger men; and Geologist Leonard Smith, another Mattawa boy, directs the Timmins field work. The old days are gone, but the Mattawa influence continues, although in distant places.

The Rise of Joe Beaulieu

T) ECAUSE of the sensationally spectacuU lar development of Northern Ontario and Quebec gold fields in the years immediately following the Cobalt discovery, the men of the Timmins pioneer group have become the most widely known of all Mattawa’s famous sons. There are others, less publicized, whose individual careers have been equally interesting, even more dramatic.

Young men of today might find encouragement in the story of the boy Joseph

Beaulieu, whose father was a lumber camp cook. From what remote heritage Joseph Beaulieu derived his passion for music nobody knows; but it was there, a brightly flaming fire within the boy.

He was poor. The family could not afford music teachers. Mrs. Lamothe, wife of the baker and storekeeper, was also organist of Ste. Ann’s Church up on the hill. There were half a dozen young Lamothes, all of them music-minded.

“We had a sort of family orchestra,” Mr. Lamothe said, “Young Joe used to play with us.”

Mrs. Lamothe encouraged Beaulieu’s genius. At odd moments she taught him to play, and he practiced his scales on the church organ. When Joe was fifteen he got a job coaxing theme tunes from a tin-can piano in a local movie house. Those were silent picture days. The pianist supplied the atmosphere—“Hearts and Flowers” for weepy scenes; the tail end of the William Tell Overture when the rescue party galloped clopi tty-clop onto the screen. Joe Beaulieu must have found this terrible junk; but it earned him a few dollars a week, and those dollars helped to pay for his education.

He stuck it out, fought it through. He got himself into Ottawa College, qualified for an instructorship in French, and went on to become an outstanding musician among his own people. He has composed and written scores of French songs, and his full sonorous baritone is known to concert and radio audiences all over French Canada. You can buy records made by Joe Beaulieu, the camp cook’s son, too.

If it’s romance you’re looking for, consider the career of Mattawa’s Armand Pigeon, the son of yet another general store keeper who wasn’t doing very well at it. The Pigeon family traces back to heroic Madeleine de Verchères. Père Marquette, celebrated explorer and missionary, figures in it somewhere along the line.

Ancestry didn’t make Papa Pigeon a good businessman, though. The Pigeons were hard up, hag-ridden by debt, and the boy Armand, thoroughly disgusted with the store and all it represented, took to the bush while he was in his early teens. At sixteen he was an expert guide, trapper and woodsman. He read vastly, and he liked to draw pictures. As the years passed he taught himself surveying, worked as a level and transit man with survey parties, then as a fire ranger. He handled dog teams on two rescue expeditions inside the Arctic Circle. He met James Oliver Curwood, the wild-life novelist, acted as his guide and later, through Curwood’s influence, landed a job in Hollywood as technical adviser on North Country pictures.

Hot - blooded, adventurous Armand Pigeon turned soldier of fortune for a time, fought in one of Mexico’s recurring revolutions. He served an enlistment in the United States Army.

All this time he was drawing pictures. Broke in New York, he washed dishes in an all-night restaurant, to pay for art lessons he took in the daytime. Next he got himself a newspaper job.

Today Armand Pigeon, mature and dignified, is a commercial artist in Windsor. Mattawa, the bush, and the dog teams are far in the past, but they are his background, and they helped to mold him into the successful man he has become.

These Mattawa men who have achieved fame had their hard times. Dr. Meindl, the surgeon, and his brother, the engineer, both drove bread wagons for Louis Lamothe. Mike Rodden worked his way through Queen’s.

Many of the men who have helped to make Mattawa famous in the past twentyfive years have passed along to the end of the trail. Noah and Henry Timmins have gone, and David Dunlap. Grey Owl writes and lectures no more.

But the young Timmins men have stepped into their parents’ shoes. Jack Rankin and Leonard Smith are active, as are the Meindls. Joseph Beaulieu sings and teaches by turns. Armand Figeon continues to draw pictures. Louis Berlinquette, the hockey player, of whom the late George Kennedy once said: “He’s

the doggonedest, tryingest youngster I’ve ever seen,” lives in Mattawa during the winter months, with his family. In summer Louis is head forest ranger for the Sudbury district. Mike Rodden’s hair is white now, but his pen is as pungent as ever, and he still knows more than any average six young writers about the intricate convolutions of the sport world.

Can a Town Come Back?

TN RECENT years circumstances have

conspired meanly against Mattawa, have pushed the once lively, pulsating little town aside. The Canadian Pacific runs a branch line through Mattawa, but the C.P.R. divisional point is at North Bay. So are the Canadian National’s divisional point and the T. and N.O. terminal.

The Trans-Canada Highway, Route 17, skirts the southern edge of the town, and two buses daily, one each way, link Mattawa with North Bay, Pembroke and Ottawa; but the paved road turns its back abruptly on Mattawa’s Main Street, following the Ottawa River south.

Hunting and fishing are good in the hills and lakes that surround the town; but that is true of dozens of handier spots more easily accessible from Toronto and Ottawa. The natural beauties of the Mattawa countryside are much more lavish than those of other places which attract tourists by the thousands—than Callander, for instance. Callander, forty miles southwest of Mattawa, is, scenically, an unattractive village set flatly on the shores of Lake Nipissing, liberally splotched with hot dog stands, souvenir shops, cabin camps and other garish tourist bait; but Callander has the Quints. Mattawa has nothing but the loveliness of its eternal hills, coronetted with tall trees, its lush green valleys, its sparkling lakes and smooth flowing streams. Therefore, Callander prospers exceedingly; and almost half the families in Mattawa are on relief.

You see few young men and women in Mattawa today. Mostly children and elderly folks. The young people don't stay. “What is there for us here?” they cry.

But the old confident spirit is not entirely dead. We stood with Louis Lamothe beside the rusty wire fence enclosing the mansion where John Loughrin, first member of the Dominion House of Commons for Nipissing, once lived grandly. It is a large Victorian house of dull red brick, and it is falling to pieces now, has been unoccupied for years. John Loughrin is dead, his family scattered. Several acres of land studded with fine old pine trees surround the house. The weedgrown pasture that used to be the wellkept lawn slopes down to the river. A fine, once beautiful property, gone to seed. “It’s up for taxes,” Louis Lamothe told us sadly. “You could buy it for $2,000.”

Fred Ribout, who runs a men’s furnishings store, left off polishing his car in his back yard across the way, and came over to talk. He told us about the new picket fence built from an old one he had set up twenty years previously, and invited our admiration for a pile of hardwood like a small mountain, neatly stacked inside that fence.

“Of course,” Fred Ribout said, “I got the wood in trade. The man owed me money, so I took the wood for the bill. That way it’s easier all round.”

“I can remember,” Louis Lamothe remarked, “when I would put two-three hundred dollars away in that old safe of mine on Saturday night. Now I don’t take in that much cash in a month.” “Sure,” said Fred Ribout. “Times are hard. But I’ll tell you something.” He waved an expansive arm toward the high slope behind us. “You see that lovely hill.

I bet you the time will come when that will be covered with fine homes. I may not live to see it, but it will come. This town is going to grow.”

Well, maybe Fred Ribout is right. We hope so, sincerely. On the other hand there is the viewpoint expressed by the Widow Morel, who was a Miss Fink. Mrs. Morel runs the Trans-Canada I Intel.

“I wish we had the Quints in Mattawa " Mrs. Morel said, a bit wistfully.